I can’t breathe — We heard these harrowing words repeatedly in recent years from dying Black Americans, including George Floyd. Today, I see them as the thread tying together three seemingly disparate issues: police brutality, COVID-19, and air pollution.
Each issue suffocates in different ways: a knee on the neck, a virus in the lungs, a power plant in the community. Yet in each case, racial injustice is a driving force determining who lives and who dies.
Pope Francis frequently says, “Everything is connected” when discussing poverty, racial injustice, ecology, and the economy.
These issues are intertwined in a myriad of ways. Racism and poverty exacerbate each other and amplify the devastation that pandemics, recessions, and climate disruptions cause.
Religious faith is intertwined as well, since we are given a moral command to care for our vulnerable and marginalized sisters and brothers.
I am a Franciscan friar, a Catholic priest, and an immigrant from Indonesia. I am often tempted to just stick to prayers in church or to stay within the bounds of my immigrant community, but to do so would deny that faith is relevant to our whole lives and God has bound us together as a human family.
My faith, racism, the pandemic, and environmental justice are all interconnected; I cannot breathe easy knowing others are suffocating. The struggles of my Asian immigrant community are connected to the struggles of Black people to make their lives matter to us all.
On a large scale we have disregarded the “collateral damage” (to use Pope Francis’ term) of our choices and priorities. For low-income communities of color, we as a society chose suppression and punishment over building community.
We prioritized more funding for police and prisons over the schools, health clinics, and job centers that would enable us to flourish together. We determined grocery clerks, delivery people, and maintenance and sanitation crews — many of them people of color — “essential workers” in a pandemic, but truthfully, they were “expendable workers” to us.
We located power plants and other toxic polluters in Black and Latino communities — including South Phoenix. African Americans now have 21 percent greater exposure to deadly air pollution (fine particulate matter) than the overall population and Latinos have 12 percent greater exposure, even though both groups contribute substantially less to our nation’s air pollution according to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It is not only morally repugnant to treat parts of our society as expendable, it is blind and detrimental to us all. As Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” As conflict roils our society, we need to work to allow all people to breathe peacefully, or else it will not be a healthy society for any of us.
I would like to zero in on environmental justice as part of our path to healing our country from systemic racism. African American children are ten times more likely to die of asthma attacks than White children, and pollution is a major factor.
Exposure to air pollution is also linked to a higher death rate from COVID-19. At a fundamental level we must question the amount of pollution and pain we are supposed to accept as the price of progress, and we certainly must ask our souls if it is acceptable for low-income communities of color to bear most of the burden.
Five years ago this month, Pope Francis released his major church document called Laudato Si, an encyclical letter calling us to renew our understanding of morality in relation to the environment. Pope Francis says it is a moral issue when marginalized people have become “the disposable” to whom we can cast dirty power plants. We must realize that it hurts us all in the long run when people have become “the excluded” and are cut off from societal and environmental investment.
Right now, the president’s administration is demonstrating its short-sightedness in this area by attempting to weaken the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. These safeguards protect communities across the country from dangerous mercury and toxic pollution from coal- and oil-burning power plants. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have spoken out against their weakening, citing the irreparable harm that these toxins do to all of us, especially pregnant mothers and their unborn children.
People of faith are called not to keep their faith private and isolated, but to “renew the face of the earth.” We must work at this every day, and one urgent action we can take is to speak out against the gutting of MATS.
As a Christian, I believe God breathed the “breath of life” into us. We have a sacred duty to defend the ability of all of us to breathe.
The Rev. Sam Nasada, OFM, is a Franciscan Catholic priest ministering in Scottsdale and Oceanside, Calif.